At a Seattle Town Hall forum with local scholars, some acknowledged polarization driven by rapid social change makes good politics difficult.
Two historians and a pair of political scientists walk into a room and try to explain the current presidential campaign. No one leaves the room laughing.
This is one of those moments when our country’s politics seem to have run off the rails, and speakers at a forum this week identified a number of causes. What stuck with me were anger, ignorance and isolation.
The discussion Tuesday evening at Town Hall Seattle, “2016 election: How Did We Get Here?,” was sponsored by the University of Washington Alumni Association.
Christopher Sebastian Parker, UW political-science professor, led the discussion and started by asking about Monday evening’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
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The panelists said debates don’t usually change whom voters will support. They expect a very close race.
You won’t be surprised that most of the discussion focused on the Trump phenomenon. How could he be a major-party’s nominee, and how could he be running so strongly? The answers are as much about voters as about their candidate.
It used to be party elites largely decided who would run, but Trump, with his own money and with oversized media attention, didn’t need them. He spoke directly to voters, who want an outsider who gets what they’re feeling.
One of the panelists, Rick Shenkman, a Seattle journalist, historian and social-science author, said people may be shocked by Trump’s emergence, but no one should be surprised by it.
One of Shenkman’s books, “Just How Stupid Are We?,” was about how little voters know about the issues. Studies show most American voters know more about TV characters than about their own government.
His latest book, “Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics,” lays out the science that makes clear our gut instincts usually outweigh rationality in our political choices.
“Donald Trump came along, and he has now proven my point,” Shenkman said.
Mark A. Smith, a UW political scientist who has studied the role of religion in politics, gave his own example of a choice that doesn’t seem logical. In the spring there was talk that Mormons, uncomfortable with Trump, might turn from voting Republican because of their religious values. That’s not happening. He predicts, “They’ll hold their noses and vote for Trump” to be politically consistent.
Panelists also said isolation from opposing information increases political polarization. It’s easier for people today to take in only information that confirms beliefs they already hold.
There have been other times in American history when many voters turned to someone who offered simple answers, Shenkman said. Margaret O’Mara, associate history professor at the UW, said Trump is “like this crazy mashup of Huey Long, Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace.”
Trump has risen partly because, she said, the two major parties haven’t addressed the frustration and anger that many people feel, some of it driven by economic anxiety.
Parker asked the panelists to speak to the role of race in politics today.
“Of all the issues in this campaign,” Smith said, “the biggest dividing line is around racial identity.” (Trump supporters are disproportionately white.)
O’Mara said we started heading toward today’s polarization long ago. Between 1964 and 1980, there was a period of increasing rights for groups that had been marginalized. And then the economy began to change — with fewer good jobs and with more people eligible for those jobs.
Parker, who has studied reactionary movements in U.S. history, said economic stress isn’t the major impetus for many people. Among Tea-Party supporters, 20 percent of their households had income of at least $120,000 a year, he said. “This is really more about perceived rapid social change,” he said. The reactionary movements often include sexist, homophobic and xenophobic elements.
Shenkman said white people are not going to be the majority for much longer, and some are feeling squeezed.
They all agreed that whoever wins, the anger will still be there. That’s a problem. Shenkman said, “When you’re angry, democracy fails because angry people do not compromise.”
O’Mara found hope in the conversation. And noted that the debate Monday was the first time a presidential candidate in a debate said the word “racism.” That was Clinton.
In fighting anger, ignorance and isolation, there is hope in civil discourse and in education. That won’t be easy. At the start, Parker asked people in the audience who supported Trump to raise their hands. No hands went up.